tampabay.com

Attorney general rivals will debate

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published September 28, 2006


MIAMI - Fending off criticism that he is ducking his lesser-known opponent, Republican attorney general candidate Bill McCollum on Wednesday agreed to at least three formal debates before Election Day.

McCollum made the offer to Democrat state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell as the two met for the first time since the primary, speaking to a group of more than 200 South Florida lawyers.

A former Orlando area congressman and twice a U.S. Senate candidate, McCollum had not responded previously to four separate debate requests and refused a fifth from his alma mater, the University of Florida, said Campbell campaign manager Jeff Garcia.

"We need to debate the issues, and we will," McCollum said, proposing a series of debates hosted by the Orange County League of Women Voters, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Press Association. "This is a very important race."

Garcia said McCollum's remarks were disingenuous, since for weeks he had been silent about debating Campbell, a Broward County trial lawyer. Campbell, however, said he would accept McCollum's offer.

"Sure," said Campbell. "When? And where?"

Discussions about debates intensified this week after McCollum's campaign said he would not take questions from the audience at Wednesday's forum.

McCollum campaign manager Phil Vangelakos told the Miami Herald Tuesday that traveling to South Florida, where Campbell is from, and speaking to a lawyers group is like "sticking our hand in the fire." McCollum supports tort reform measures while Campbell steadfastly opposes them, as do most trial lawyers.

Campbell volunteers handed out copies of the Herald article at the forum to a group that included former Attorney General Bob Butterworth and at least two dozen South Florida judges.

Before the forum began, McCollum agreed to hear from the audience. Questioners asked about immigration, court reform, restoring civil rights to released felons and McCollum's role in the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.

"I never intended to debate here today, but I certainly am happy to take your questions," he told the crowd at a ballroom at the Miami downtown Hyatt.

McCollum stressed his experience in Congress, where he founded the House Task Force on Terrorism and chaired the House Subcommittee on Crime.

Campbell focused on his 10 years in Tallahassee, where he says he became a citizens' advocate, rallying for insurance reform, among other things.

Both men are running on platforms that include added identity theft protections and tougher laws on sex predators.